A former National Security Agency contractor wanted by the US for revealing highly classified surveillance programs has been allowed to leave for a “third country” because a US extradition request did not fully comply with Hong Kong law, the territory’s government said yesterday.
After an Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong believed to be carrying Edward Snowden landed in Moscow, Russia’s state ITAR-Tass news agency cited an unnamed Aeroflot airline official as saying Snowden was on board Flight SU213, which landed yesterday afternoon in Moscow. The report said he intended to fly to Cuba today and then on to Caracas, Venezuela.
Snowden had been in hiding in Hong Kong for several weeks since he revealed information on the highly classified spy programs. The WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group said it was working with him and he was bound for an unnamed “democratic nation via a safe route for the purpose of asylum.”
The White House had no immediate comment about the departure, which came a day after the US made a formal request for his extradition and gave a pointed warning to Hong Kong against delaying the process of returning him to face trial in the US.
The US Department of Justice said only that it would “continue to discuss this matter with Hong Kong and pursue relevant law enforcement cooperation with other countries where Snowden may be attempting to travel.”
The Hong Kong government said in a statement that Snowden left “on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel.”
It acknowledged the US extradition request, but said US documentation did not “fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law.”
The signal that Hong Kong had let Snowden go on a technicality appears to be a pragmatic decision aimed at avoiding a drawn out extradition battle. The move swiftly eliminates a geopolitical headache that could have left it facing pressure from both Washington and Beijing.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that Russia would be willing to consider granting asylum if Snowden were to make such a request.
WikiLeaks said it was providing legal help to Snowden at his request and that he was being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from the group. Its frontman, Julian Assange, told the Sydney Morning Herald that the organization is in a position to help because it has expertise in international asylum and extradition law.
US President Barack Obama’s administration on Saturday warned Hong Kong against delaying Snowden’s extradition, with White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon saying in an interview with CBS News, “Hong Kong has been a historically good partner of the United States in law enforcement matters, and we expect them to comply with the treaty in this case.”
Snowden’s departure came as the South China Morning Post released new allegations from Snowden that US hacking targets in China included the nation’s cellphone companies and two universities hosting extensive Internet traffic hubs.
The Chinese government has not commented on the extradition request and Snowden’s departure, but its media have used Snowden’s allegations to poke back at Washington after the US had spent the past several months pressuring China on its alleged international spying operations.